“Go towards the Ladd Company!”

Image from Peter Jackson’s THE LOVELY BONES. Joke from this previous post.

Interesting that two antipodean fantasy filmmakers serve up such strikingly similar images. I think part of the reason may be that artificial landscapes have a tendency to creep towards symmetry in a way that real ones rarely do.

I confess to mixed feelings about this one. Conventional wisdom labelled it a misfire, and much of it certainly is. In Jackson’s oeuvre, it’s closest to HEAVENLY CREATURES, my favourite of his films, but the fantastical imagery doesn’t have the sinister, psychotic undercurrents of that picture, which means that, beautiful as it is, it leans a little towards kitsch. I define kitsch here as  “a child’s idea of the sublime”. Which, it could be argued, is what Jackson is presenting: the teenage girl’s personal afterlife, painted as she might imagine it. But it feels like too much loveliness, not enough bone.

Glenn Kenny’s review here hits some of the criticisms I’d have made had he not done so first, and so well. But he does defend the film from comparisons with Vincent Ward’s WHAT DREAMS MAY COME. I can see the similarity, not just because it’s another Kiwi fantasist, but because I get a slightly icky feeling from both, but at least Jackson’s afterlife isn’t made of oil paint, and doesn’t contain an 80s pop video version of Hell. And the more surreal elements, like giant ships in bottles shattering against the shoreline, at least justify the use of CGI as something other than an attempt to improve on nature.

Both films do, however, feature gloriously lovely autumnal suburban scenes, shared also with Alex Proyas’s KNOWING. Now, I love ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS as much as the next Sirkian, but it seems to me that if you’re going to actually feature Heaven in your movie, or a sort of antechamber of Heaven (Jackson) or a Heaven Planet (Proyas), you might want to give the real world scenes a tad more grit, just to make an effective contrast. I’m saying this, and I hate grit, normally.

Jackson has always been devoted to creating his own worlds, something I kind of identify with. There’s no essential reason why BRAIN DEAD is set in the fifties, and there’s no reason why THE LOVELY BONES is set in the seventies — it’s an excuse to take a step away from reality and give everything a distinctive look, but here it seems to remove us a step too far from the everyday, especially since Jackson’s dealing with an era he’s barely old enough to remember, in a  country he’s never lived in, reconstructed on the other side of the world.

There are a couple of great scenes — a suspense sequence where the heroine’s little sister searches the killer’s house is genuinely nerve-twisting… the discovery of a series of murder victims manages to combine the eerily beautiful with the creepy and tragic, in the only scene that really manages to hit more than one Big Emotion at a time. Here we see something that’s actually new to Jackson’s filmmaking: his early films gave full rein to his irreverent sense of humour, along with which no other mood can really coexist. HEAVENLY CREATURES deployed some of the same melodramatic flourishes the RINGS trilogy would exploit, allowing them to mix with the small-scale real-life story in a genuinely surprising way, but it’s still one emotion at a time.  Then the RINGS films pulled the humour in completely, since irreverence was judged fatal to Tolkein. Jackson knew he needed some kind of humour, and his attempts to get it were among the epics’ less effective moments. The most complex moments came from Gollum, whose schizoid nature makes him the most rounded character in the books, and someone who does carry a certain tonal variety around in his very essence. The adventure of KONG embraces two principle modes, the snappy thirties manly stuff and the Naomi Watts ape stuff, which intersect freely and never seem to clash.

But the story of THE LOVELY BONES combines so many feelings and tones that the movie really needs more scenes like the above, or it risks disintegrating into a bag of extracts from different films. The worst of these films is the one that stars Rachel Weisz and Susan Sarandon, a gaudy Odd Couple comedy routine that comes crashing into the bereavement like a pitch invasion from Jackson’s BRAIN DEAD. Remember the scene in BLAZING SADDLES when a top hat & tails musical number is brought to a standstill by a saloon brawl overflowing from the next sound stage? It’s kind of like that.

But I did like Stanley Tucci, whose makeup eerily resembles that of Nic Cage in KICK ASS, a strange crepe mustache being the centrepiece. I recall reading that Oliver Reed, that noted perfectionist, always grew his own facial hair because fake beards don’t move with your face. Tucci’s facial fungus DOES move with his face, with the sensitivity and synchronization of a great dance partner, but it’s somehow all the more unconvincing for it. Weird. But Tucci’s is the most Jacksonian perf, capturing the fervid melodrama that lifts HEAVENLY CREATURES out of the true crime genre and into something more peculiar.

I found myself wondering if maybe it’s the character who’s wearing a wig and a false ‘tache, and wondered what kind of man would DO that, when he knows he’s going to be interviewed by the police? He’s the Groucho Marx of serial killers. Never mind why he excavates an insane crime grotto under a cornfield, kills his victim, collapses the cavern, but removes the body to his home, something which makes no criminological sense whatever (but would be more reasonable in a contemporary setting where he might be worried about DNA evidence) — that’s from the novel, as are a lot of the narrative infelicities — such madness is thrown into sharp perspective by the little piece of fuzzy felt clinging to Tucci’s upper lip, seeming to shriek “You’ll never catch me! I’m far too clever for you! Why, you can’t even detect my bogus Mr Potato Head moustache!”

Now THAT’S depravity for you.

14 Responses to ““Go towards the Ladd Company!””

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    Feelings towards religion aside, I have always found the idea of an afterlife depressing in and of itself. The one rendition in cinema that feels totally authentic due to its ambivalent presentation is AMOLAD, which I saw again last week. When Roger Livesey and Raymond Massey harangue each other, Livesey tells Massey that he needs to be updated, this is the 20th and not the 18th century. Then Massey corrects him implacably, “Let me update you further, both of us are dead!”

  2. A story told by a murder victim from beyond the grave is indeed icky.

    In Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives the principle ghost is asked about the afterlife. “Heaven is boring,” she says. “There’s nothing going on there.”

  3. “Heaven is a place / A place where nothing, nothing ever happens.” — Talking Heads.

    “In Heaven / Everything is fine” — Eraserhead.

    It’s clear from his interviews that Jackson was totally aware of all the possible pitfalls of this story — which makes it mysterious and fascinating that he walked into so many of them. The one thing it isn’t is depressing or sordid, but that’s because the idea of the murder is never really convincing. That’s partly because the victim is still walking and talking, of course.

    It’s no masterpiece, but Ghost actually manages that more effectively.

  4. This film was far too corny and far too pussyfooting around the idea of child murder, which strangely made the theme seem in more bad taste than if they had dwelt on it in detail. It makes a fascinating contrast with The Frighteners, which is a film I really love, but which fuses light-hearted comedy romance of a GhostBusters style film with a really dark serial killer plotline (the hospital massacre is something astounding to see in an ostensible family film) and a horrific comeuppance for our diabolical couple.

    Yet The Frighteners feels as if, by not soft peddling the necessary horror, that it retains some inherent internal integrity, and makes the otherwise generic light romance scenes between Michael J. Fox and Trini Alvadaro feel much more powerful and important as a defence against some truly dark forces in the world. The trailer shows the difficulty of selling that film, with far too much emphasis on the ghostly companion shtick that only occupies about the first quarter of the film:

    While I heard that The Frighteners itself had conflicts between the filmmaker and the stuido about the tone of the film (I can see how it could have been a difficult sell), it really deserves its cult status. The Lovely Bones on the other hand feels compromised tonally, falling between two stools by being too upsetting for ‘general’ audiences by simply dealing with such material, and too ‘soft’ for Jackson regulars who didn’t expect a side stepping of some of the more difficult aspects of the book.

    I was glad to see Jackson giving Jeffrey Combs another supporting role though (again strenghtening the connection between The Lovely Bones and The Frighteners)

    I would have loved to have seen what the possible Lynne Ramsey version of The Lovely Bones would have been like (though Ratcatcher is already a kind of version of a child drifting through a form of purgatory following the death of his friend, finding a transient form of paradise and observing his family in a detached manner)

    Also to counter the idea that the ‘early, funny’ Jackson films only contained humour, I thought Braindead handled some of the idea of losing your parent quite touchingly, even if they were a monstrous person even before they became a monster! Albeit some of the more touching, beautiful moments get overwhelmed by the torrents of gore!

  5. I guess even the earliest Jackson films do play in some arena of conflicted response, because the humour is at war with the sheer grossness of the imagery.

    It seemed to me, watching this one, that the girl should’ve been in every scene, witnessing from beyond the grave, whereas Jackson plays a good many scenes without her present at all. And this maybe accounts for some of the lack of tension: her presence would have been a grim reminder of what had happened, and involving her in those scenes might have done something to help her strange passivity as the story progresses.

  6. I agree, that was a big issue in the film. You need to be tied to her presence constantly, witnessing with her, otherwise you lose that sense of connection and don’t know whether she is aware of the same events that you as a viewer are. I haven’t thought this through too much but I think that because it is such an extremely stylised form of experience and film, these ghostly films from the ghosts perspective need that point of view to be prioritised, with the ‘real world’ beyond only glimpsed through a constantly imposed layer of the afterlife. This can be conscious on the part of the ghosts, such as Beetlejuice and so on, or unconscious and used as the ‘twist’ at the end that they were dead all along, but this single perspective appears to be a fundamental rule of the genre. If you jump outside that to show the ‘real world’ then the strength of the bond that are tying the ghost to the living gets severed, along with that of the viewer to the action – suddenly we aren’t as totally invested with this already departed character (it is telling how many films show living people passing into the afterlife, likely for reasons of universal interest in that aspect(!), but few films simply start off in another world)

    Also, while I have issues with Enter The Void, it sticks closely to this rule of staying within the point of view (albeit applies it relentlessly and mercilessly!) And one of my favourite James Herbert books was Fluke, the fantasy about the man reincarnated as a dog and who still remembers fragments of his past life and a conspriacy endangering his family that he has to stop, all whilst having this ‘past life’ drift away to be replaced with doggy thoughts and feelings. It is a very beautiful book about acceptance of new circumstances, made into a rather disappointing film with Matthew Modine (a talking animal picture likely following in the wake of Babe’s success) that doesn’t really scratch the surface of those issues too deeply.

    Plus my other issue with The Lovely Bones was the characterisation of the serial killer being far too obvious – the creepy, loner, weird looking guy across the street that anyone conditioned by decades of television and films would have immediately pegged as the murderer ages before! This is something which makes the family seem particularly deluded, though often Jackson does use broadly caricatured characters such as these to portray a kind of childlike view of ‘grown ups’ and their behaviour, so it might make more sense when viewed from this perspective.

  7. For a kind of Fluke in reverse, please do see Dean Spanley. It’s wonderful.

    I think you’re on the money re Tucci, and also re Jackson’s reasons for doing it that way. Since we already know he’s the killer, it doesn’t make much sense to show him that way, but Jackson does like his performances big and bold. This works in the splatter films and epics, and more mysteriously it really works in Heavenly Creatures. But this story refuses to accommodate it.

  8. I love the way that the two sets of parents get muddled up in Heavenly Creatures, with the ‘wrong’ set idealised (Winslet’s parents, who are obviously perfect in every way, jet setting around the world and will absolutely, definitely going to be coming back for her) and demonised (Lynskey’s parents, stuck in a small town and obviously trying to smother her to death and prevent her from reaching her full potential) in Heavenly Creatures, all building to that final walk where the doomed mother reveals a kindness, essential humanity and love of nature…before getting her head bashed in.

  9. i think the Lovely Bones is an example of the difficulty of literary translation. There are probably loads of good translations, but in this case, the literary trope of the omniscient narrator makes an awkward transition to film making tropes, or that Jackson couldn’t find the trope, though he” knows the tropes” rather well. I don’t really know if the voiceover fully reconciles the problem.

    I guess having the protagonist in every scene could have worked, but also could have just illustrated the idea of an omniscient narrator.

    i seem to remember a 40’s b movie, that opens with a scene of woman’s corpse in a morgue, and then the whole film is told in flashback, with the dead woman’s voiceover.

  10. …Scared to Death(1947), and of course there’s the dead narrator of Sunset Blvd.

  11. re: Colin’s comments about Frighteners vs. Lovely Bones – right on!

    re: literary translation – I saw Lovely Bones with a librarian friend at a free showing held for employees and friends of bookstores and libraries, many of whom had read the novel. We left as the post-screening Q&A was getting underway, staying just long enough to get a general impression of what fans of the book thought about the film… they HATED it.

    re: nothing at all – I am just back from a 35mm screening of the horror film THE GATE, which was respectably well attended. First time I’ve seen it in theaters, after countless viewings on cable and videotape. They started the night with a vintage preview for Gremlins 2. Nobody I know will understand my excitement for these things, so I am posting here instead of telling them.

  12. My suspicion is that putting the girl in every scene, thereby turning the movie from open to closed narrative, would help EVERYTHING. In a single blow it would blend together all the clashing moods, because you’d have the memento mori/spectre at the banquet figure present during the comedy schtick. It also makes sense of the girl’s VO — I always get a little irked by films where the protagonist is telling us the story, but we get to see scenes s/he doesn’t know about.

    Glad to hear both Heavenly Creatures and The Gate getting some love. That sequence leading up to the mother’s death is sublime and terrifying and very moving to me. It’d be so easy to make that film and demonize the victim (see Monster and so many others).

  13. I like that in Heavenly Creatures everyone is a victim and a villain in certain senses. The parents don’t pay enough attention to their children and don’t have any respect for their daughter’s vivid imagination, or help in any way to give it an outlet. And the children don’t attempt to understand their parents at all except in the most black or white terms as enablers or people holding them back, and have vivid fantasies but apply them to their lives in profoundly stupid ways, without a thought for the consequences.

    The scene of the walk is incredibly powerful – even watching the film for a third or fourth time it is paced so perfectly as to give me a brief hope against hope that for once they might not carry out their plan, and have one of the happiest days of their lives instead of the most horrific one.

    And then that harrowing ending of the fantastic hopeful dream turning into a nightmare of separation and the heart-rending screams of total, irrevocable separation echoing.

    I often think that the ending of Heavenly Creatures, with the card describing one of the real girls growing up to become a famous mystery author (I forget who now after all this time) could bear some comparison with the end of Atonement – is knowingly destroying the life of a real person mitigated somehow by channelling an over-active imagination into becoming a successful writer?

    Or is it just a way to pretend/delude yourself that you have atoned for your past by simplifying and making it more palatable, whilst still avoiding facing up to the ‘reality’ of the situation?

  14. Anne Perry is the mystery writer. Everything she’s said on the subject has been sympathetic and sensible. I think the reality is that you can’t ever atone for taking a life, because you can’t make it up to the person you wronged. The best you can do is lead a better life and do some good. Writing decent fiction isn’t enough, but if you funnel the profits into good causes and work for the benefit of humanity, that’s something.

    Anyhow, terrific film, and you capture it’s particular power admirably.

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